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Avdiivka’s Fall: a microcosm of failed western approaches to the Russia-Ukraine war

Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka can be attributed primarily to three factors: a substantial military escalation by Putin, a lack of clear objectives from the western world, and a disparity between western promises of support for Ukraine and their actual delivery.

February 29, 2024 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Checkpoint in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Andrii Gorb / Shutterstock

Putin’s calculated decision to escalate the war in 2024, perhaps motivated by domestic political considerations in the run up to the presidential election in March, has proven instrumental in securing the Avdiivka victory. Russia’s staggering increase in military expenditure, soaring to approximately  140 billion US dollars – nearly 30 per cent higher than the previous year – has afforded it a formidable advantage over Ukraine. Concretely, it allows Russia to outspend Ukraine by more than threefold, with profound implications on the battleground.

Over recent months, Ukrainian troops have faced a daunting challenge, confronting a significant disparity in military capabilities. Military analysts assert that a three-to-one superiority is conventionally necessary for successful offensive manoeuvres, a threshold that Russian forces have surpassed. On the frontlines, Ukrainian troops face overwhelming odds, often finding themselves outgunned by the Russians at a ratio of five-to-one in terms of artillery and even seven-to-one when dealing with drones. Manpower figures alone paint a grim picture, with reports indicating that Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka were outnumbered by Russian troops at a staggering fifteen-to-one ratio before the city eventually succumbed.

Russia’s win in Avdiivka came at a huge cost as it was characterized by a willingness by Putin to deploy Russian troops with reckless abandon. By the end of 2023, military analysts observed a clear difference in casualties and tank losses between Russia and Ukraine at the Avdiivka front, which has often been described as a “meat grinder”. Estimates suggested a ratio of seven-to-one or even ten-to-one in favour of Ukrainian forces. Putin’s strategic gamble for 2024 hinges on exploiting political uncertainties within the western world, anticipating that such divisions will ultimately erode support for Ukraine, thereby facilitating its capitulation, as was the case in Avdiivka.

Secondly, Avdiivka was lost because, despite the Kremlin’s escalation in support for the Russian military, the West finds itself entangled in policy indecision. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have yet to equivocally establish whether their strategic objective is for Ukraine to merely survive the Russian invasion or to achieve outright victory. The stalling of the 61 billion US dollar military support package for Ukraine by the US Congress suggests that American policy makers are being complacent even with regards to the first option.

However, the broader picture is even more grim. Since the escalation in February 2022, the EU and the US have pledged a combined total of 144 billion and 67.62 billion euros respectively to Ukraine. That translates to a mere 114 billion dollars annually, less than Russia’s military budget for 2024. Still, the bulk of western funding is directed towards non-military expenses, leaving Ukraine ill-equipped to fend off Russian advances. The stark reality is that Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction requirements surpass 486 billion dollars, highlighting the glaring disparity between available resources and the nation’s urgent needs.

Western governments must confront a pressing question: how committed are we to support Ukraine to achieve actual victory? The statistics reveal a disturbing reality. According to the Kiel Institute, from January 2022 to January 2024, NATO members such as Estonia, Denmark and Lithuania have contributed substantial percentages of their GDPs – representing 4.1 per cent, 3 per cent, and 2.1 per cent respectively – towards Ukraine. Yet, the largest (economically speaking) NATO members like the US, Germany and the UK have offered significantly less, at 0.32 per cent, 1.1 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively.

The reality is that the war could be over before the end of 2025. With the combined GDP of all 31 NATO members plus Sweden estimated at approximately 45.93319 trillion dollars (nominal, 2022), allocating one per cent of each member’s GDP to Ukraine would result in annual support to Kyiv totalling 459.3 billion dollars. The increase will significantly bolster Ukraine’s defensive and offensive capabilities, which could help Kyiv not only to survive but defeat Russia.

The Russia-Ukraine war underscores that not everything boils down to numbers. Ukrainian innovation has played a pivotal role, defying conventional military expectations and enabling the country to punch holes in Russia’s military against considerable odds. Nonetheless, a one per cent threshold will provide Ukraine with a formidable advantage, which may be able to provide it with a three-to-one superiority conducive to offensive operations to reclaim occupied territories. Given the high long-term stakes of a Russian win, a one per cent commitment is a modest sacrifice, especially considering that the US spent nearly 40 per cent of its GDP on defence during the Second World War. 

While one has to acknowledge the logistical hurdles that the western military-industrial complex must overcome to supply Ukraine with what is needed, these challenges can only be effectively addressed when western governments establish a clear strategic goal and demonstrate the political resolve to see them through. Such clarity and determination have direct implications on the battlefield as well.

Lastly, Avdiivka’s fall underscores a stark discrepancy between western commitments and actual delivery. Quite frankly, the EU is failing to fulfil its commitment of providing Ukraine with 1.1 million units of artillery by the end of this month, falling short by approximately 50 per cent. Consequently, in recent months, Ukraine’s daily artillery fire has decreased significantly from about 10,000 shells to 2,000, while Russian forces maintain a much higher rate of fire, nearing 10,000 shells per day.

The EU’s incomplete artillery delivery is only the tip of the iceberg. Of the 144 billion euros pledged by the EU to Ukraine in the past two years, only 77 billion has been allocated. This discrepancy signals that European states appear to regard the Russia-Ukraine war as a peripheral concern. The uncertainty of western commitments has compelled Ukrainian troops to husband valuable resources. In light of these circumstances, expecting Ukrainians to hold Avdiivka was unrealistic.

The outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war holds significant implications. Firstly, despite facing formidable odds and receiving limited support, Ukraine has managed to cripple 90 per cent of the Russian military forces that invaded its territory in February 2022. Should Ukraine fall under Russian control, Ukrainians will continue to face genocide, and the West stands to lose a valuable ally and potential member of the NATO alliance.

Secondly, the full occupation of Ukraine threatens to unleash a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions in Europe, especially in light of the Russian atrocities witnessed from Bucha to Mariupol. The current tally of Ukrainian refugees already surpasses six million individuals, with the full occupation of Ukraine – a nation of nearly 44 million people – likely to exacerbate this humanitarian catastrophe. The resultant strain on European resources and unity could rival, if not surpass, the challenges witnessed during the Second World War, which will undoubtedly fracture the EU and undermine the cohesion of the NATO alliance.

Thirdly, a Russian victory would embolden authoritarian regimes globally, signalling that aggressive territorial expansion can be pursued with impunity. This victory could encourage further destabilization in the region, especially in Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. These flashpoints would pose significant threats to transatlantic security and stability.

Additionally, a Russian triumph would send an encouraging message to China, suggesting that the West lacks medium-to-long-term commitments and resolve to defend its allies in times of crisis. Such a perception could embolden Beijing to assert its own territorial ambitions with greater confidence, undermining western interests and strategic influence in the long run.

Finally, the culmination of these factors could herald the end of the western order as we know it. An authoritarian-led coalition may rise to fill the void left by the waning influence of western democracies, reshaping global power dynamics and posing existential threats to democratic norms and institutions worldwide. In light of these profound consequences, the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war carries far-reaching implications that demand our attention and concerted action.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C.

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